Jesus, a Failed Revolutionary

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”

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Many who followed Jesus hoped for a revolutionary, a leader who might liberate Israel from its imperial oppressor. Christ could have been the answer.

But he died.

And I wonder, if Jesus wanted an insurrection, then why did he die on the cross? Why didn’t he accomplish a revolution?

I’ve been sitting on this question, waiting and thinking. In the meantime, my apocalyptic theology has grown more and more anarchist. I’ve been impatient and angry. But my sense is that this isn’t the way of Christ.

God in Christ reveals what it means to be human. It is love – to live in communion with God and with your fellow children of God. It is to be surrendered to God’s liberating love, embracing the way we are all connected and bound to one another, and following the riskiest and most beautiful implications of this connection, even unto death.

Jesus embodied the truest, fullest way to be human.

And the cross reveals the cost. It reveals that this liberation work, creating a new society marked not by hierarchy but instead by equality and mutual yielding, might cost something. And it is worth it. It must be worth it. People are worth it.

I think the problem is that following God makes us feel like failures. We work and we work and we work, but we do not see the authorities and systems we fight come crashing down. We die fighting for revolution, contending for Heaven to be realized on Earth.

Living into God’s kingdom takes the same commitment that Jesus had, one where laying down your life for your friends is not just the greatest way to show love, it’s also the only way to undo imperial oppressors.

Jesus modeled the life of a true revolutionary, absolutely committed to the way and politics of heaven, even to the point of arrest, torture, and death – even to the point of failure. Living into Christ’s revolution means that failure is both possible and probable. But if resurrection is Christ’s insurrection, then failure might also be the only way to win.

There’s another lesson here: the destruction of the systems and authorities on this earth and the realization of God’s kingdom cannot be accomplished by one person. Christ’s ministry wasn’t a one-man show. It can only be realized through his people, through his body. Through us.

Jesus revealed to us that we need to actively live into another Way. We heal one another. We feed one another. We provide for one another. We work together. We fight for the liberation of all people everywhere. The Lamb’s war is our war.

It could cost us everything. But people are worth it.

The Making of a Charismatic Quaker

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A photo of early Vineyard worship with Vineyard founder John Wimber

After stumbling into what Pentecostals and some charismatics call the “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” I had no idea what was next. Who could I tell about this mystical experience, one of tangible peace and joy, and one where I began speaking in tongues?

I met with my pastor, who was helpful in sorting through the theology of my experience and learning how to articulate my growing convictions, but he had no experience with such things and took an “open but cautious” stance on the charismatic gifts. Eventually, I opened up to some of my best Christian friends, receiving mixed responses but little direction. None of them had experienced these things, and several of them disapproved of all charismatic phenomena.

Nobody I was close to knew much about this experience outside of YouTube clips of hotline preachers. But I was desperate to nurture whatever God was doing in me, confident that she was.

I was getting desperate. And then I remembered that I had several acquaintances that were involved in a Filipino charismatic Catholic community. Though I barely knew any of them, I knew I needed their help. I reached out to one of them in the hallway, asking if we could talk about the whole Holy Spirit-thing sometime. Her face was surprised, not expecting somebody she barely knew to bring this up casually, but immediately she began telling me about her experiences and how her community operated in the gifts. After that I began having more and more conversations about the Spirit-baptism, miracles, and charismatic ministry. If I had any inkling that somebody was into that sort of thing, I made sure to find a way to dive into this conversation with them.

A woman at my church heard from her son that I was teaching about the Holy Spirit among the youth. When she approached me to talk about this, I was ready to be rebuked for being a heretic, or crossing a boundary. Instead, though, she affirmed what God was doing in my life and gifted me with a box full of DVDs, CDs, and books. All the CDs and DVDs were from seminars taught by John Wimber, the most well-known founder of the neo-charismatic Vineyard denomination, and all the books were by him as well. As I listened and read, I discovered an integrated Evangelical spirituality that valued mysticism and biblical authority; tradition and new wineskins. The way Wimber ministered was not typical of charismatics; no hype and grounded in deep listening. Wimber’s theology celebrated God being present and alive but also embraced the eschatological tension of the “not yet.” He was different.

When I moved after high school, I immediately found a Vineyard church and met a faith community that in many ways embodied what I loved about Wimber’s teachings. In that church I learned about listening to the nudges and whispers of God, witnessed healing and received prophetic words, experienced ministry fueled by love, and was even water-baptized. I was only there for a year, but my experiences with/in the Vineyard molded much of how I think and believe now. Though I am not a conservative Evangelical any longer, I believe much of what I learned from the Vineyard led me to Friends.

Which makes sense, considering Vineyard came from Friends.

Vineyard as Charismatic Quakers?

John Wimber began following Jesus in a programmed Evangelical Quaker church. As Christianity Today put it, Wimber was a “beer-guzzling, drug-abusing pop musician, who was converted at the age of 29 while chain-smoking his way through a Quaker-led Bible study.” Later on he began pastoring in this congregation and first became recognized by others as a successful “soul-winner”, earning him the position of leading the Charles E. Fuller Institute of Evangelism and Church Growth. After several years of pastoring, both Wimber and his wife became more and more convinced that there was more to the Spirit’s ministry and began experiencing the charismatic gifts with other Friends. One Vineyard website reveals why and how this led to the birth of a new movement:

As the Holy Spirit continued to move, Carol was involved in a small group named ‘Afterglow’ with her friends from the Quaker church. As they focused their attention on the Holy Spirit, and enjoying His presence, God began to move and stories spread through the town of signs and wonders happening in this group. The Quaker church sent one of their leaders to investigate and even shut down the group; however, he visited twice and returned to the elders saying: ‘I can’t do it [shut the group down]. It’s the Lord.’

Things came to a head, and John spent time with the church elders sharing that he felt this was a ‘genuine outpouring of the Holy Spirit…if this is God – and I believe it is – we are going to let him do whatever he wants to do with us.’

As these experiences were counter to the direction in which this Quaker church was moving at the time John and Carol, with the generous blessing of the Quakers were encouraged to resign their membership, and together with about sixty other people connected with Don McClure and became the Yorba Linda Calvary Chapel in May 1977.

After this group of Quakers was released by their yearly meeting, they associated with Calvary Chapel, a network of newly-formed churches that exploded in growth during the Jesus Movement. After some disagreements with Chuck Smith, founder of Calvary Chapel, Wimber’s church came under authority of a loose-knit association of churches called “Vineyard.” It was then that Kenn Gulliksen, who founded Vineyard, trusted Wimber with leadership over this growing church network. Soon after, the Vineyard began rapidly planting churches and Wimber became a leading figure in Evangelicalism and the wider church. It can be argued that many practices that Evangelicals find common-place today, such as arm-raising, intimate worship songs, listening prayer, and prayer ministries in general, were normalized by the Vineyard’s widespread influence.

Interestingly enough, Yorba Linda Vineyard Church, pastored by John Wimber’s daughter-in-law Christy Wimber, makes it clear on their website that they treasure their Quaker roots. “People often think the Vineyard Movement came from that of a Calvary Chapel, when in fact, we are Quakers at the root of who we are; and Vineyard roots are Quaker roots. We have a high value for our Quaker heritage and are very grateful for all God taught us through the amazing Quaker family.”

When interviewed, John’s wife Carol was asked if the early Vineyard could be identified as “charismatic Quaker,” and she replied, “Yes, though we had never read Fox’s Journal. Reading it later, we wondered what our contemporaries were so upset about!” She went on to say, “A movement of the Spirit happened in our group—for which generations of Quakers had prayed for years, but had no idea how it would look when it came—and when it did happen, it didn’t really fit with Quaker theology at that time. Of course, if it had happened three hundred years before, in George Fox’s day, it would have been fine!”

Carol Wimber had a point. She still has a point.

When it comes to Spirit-attentive worship and ministry, the Vineyard manifests Quaker spirituality in a way that is faithful to the Evangelical tradition, but truly mystical, and of course deeply Quaker. They live out a Quakerism many of today’s American Quakers, both Liberal and Orthodox, would find laughable, backwards. George Fox, on the other hand, may get it.

In that same article, she connects the revival experienced in the early Vineyard to its roots in Quakerism:

“In the Quaker worship, they have what they call ‘communion.’ It’s a time of silence, but if someone has a song from the Lord or a word or a teaching, they are supposed to speak out then. And every once in awhile someone would sing out some beautiful song or have a little short teaching or a little revelation—though they would not have called it that. So we were no strangers to a move of the Spirit—the later outpouring was merely an increase of what had been already happening.”

What’s so Quaker about the Vineyard Church?

Many of the distinctives and gifts of the Vineyard are undeniably tied to its roots in Quakerism.

The Vineyard strongly believes that ministry was not the job of the paid clergy alone, but every member of Christ’s body. As Wimber used to put it, “Everybody gets to play.” Worship was a corporate participatory experience, as all can listen and follow the Spirit. Though silence does not often play a role in the Vineyard liturgy, the act of listening to God, waiting upon the Spirit, is vital to Vineyard’s culture of prayer.

Their inclusive, egalitarian nature of ministry had everything to do with their charismatic conviction that the Holy Spirit dwells in all believers. Wimber’s mission was to empower the whole Church to realize this truth, declaring, “We are called to demystify the gifts of the Spirit and we are called to put the ministry of the Holy Spirit back into the hand of the church! The ministry of the Holy Spirit is for every man, woman and child in the body of Christ. All the gifts of the Spirit are for all of us! When everyone and anyone can heal the sick or cast out a demon or prophesy, then the danger of anyone becoming overly impressed with the ‘minister’ is diminished.”

This conviction in equality has always been controversial, and remains that way. Christy Wimber recently wrote, “I’ve received a lot of flack in the area of allowing people to participate in Kingdom work who haven’t been ‘around long enough.’ Maybe someone who just came off drugs, or if having a tough time getting a job, or they don’t know all our ‘Christianese.’ They don’t seem qualified yet, but the truth is, they’re already leading if people are following them. And I’m either going to take a risk and bless what I see God doing, or try to shut them down. You can’t make people follow you, at least for long, and you and I can’t make people anointed. So if God obviously anoints a person for a reason, I’m either going to pastor and allow them to play or allow the fear of what could go wrong win out. If the model was good enough for Jesus, it has to be good enough for us. John used to say all the time, ‘We have to let the bush grow and then we trim it back.’ The early Vineyard was just a bunch of young hippies; the ministry team was all young people. Yet people still got saved, healed, and delivered. God got His work done!”

Carol Wimber claimed that the Vineyard’s convictions in equality and simplicity came from their background in Evangelical Quakerism:

“The man who led us to the Lord used to talk about the responsibility and the wonder that we walked around with the presence of God dwelling in us. Also, in that Quaker church there was simplicity, and lack of ambition. The man who led us to the Lord was a welder. The foundation of the church was everyday, simple people. They dressed down, they drove Chevys instead of Cadillacs, even though some of them were quite wealthy.

Anybody felt comfortable and welcome in that church. There was no great gap between the clergy and the laity. We didn’t even use those words in the Quaker church. The big thing was whether we would love people, how we led our lives before them, and whether our faith was real. Also, there was a strong sense that we have a responsibility to let Christ live his life in us—that we have an important part to play in this process—and that eventually living that way would be the most natural thing in the world to do.”

Carol went on to connect the Vineyard’s convictions on social justice to their former Quakerism.

“A big value among the Quakers is a concern for the poor, and it’s very plain in the scriptures. And we were reading the Bible as though for the first time, asking the Lord to show us what he was really saying in the passages. And the passages about caring for the poor came with great impact. At the same time, John was visiting a church somewhere in the South, in a very poor area, and this old evangelist with no voice left anymore and who could barely read or write was calling the people back to their first call, which was the call to the poor. But he was calling John for the first time, even though John was supposed to be there as the ‘expert’ from Fuller! John was overwhelmed with the reality of our responsibility. The Gospel is for the poor and the oppressed. The preaching of the gospel among them will be just as effective as it is anywhere else. To John, to be a Christian was to give to the poor. It was just part of it. John died believing that once we separate ministry to the poor from the rest of the Christian life and our life as a church, we’re dead in the water.”

John wrote, “Carol and I believe that the main reason God’s hand has stayed on the Vineyard is because of our commitment to the poor and needy. Serving the poor isn’t an option for us. It is a life or death matter, and we have no choice here.”

How the Vineyard led me to Friends

I discovered Wimber’s writing on nonviolence in one of his booklets (and later about his pacifism from my friend Micael) and knew I had to expand my understanding of ministry and even the gospel. As I read more and more of Wimber, I became more and more aware of the holistic nature of the gospel and how justice and liberation for the oppressed is a vital aspect of it. What I generally saw in Evangelicalism seemed to divorce justice in the here-and-now from Christ’s message of liberation.

My church at the time had a trend going around the congregation of making drastic life changes in order to more fully live out the gospel. Some left behind full-time positions and others changed their vocation completely in order to devote more time to ministry, whether that was visiting those in prison, feeding the hungry, or volunteering at an after-school program. Some became missionaries abroad.

Many members also began downsizing to simplify their lives, ridding themselves of distractions and potential idols, and also in order to be able to give more financially to justice ministries and organizations they believed in.

I began seeing that the gospel required sacrifice that looked like something. It wasn’t just a one-time sacrifice, either, but it meant being attentive to what “the Father is doing,” as oft-repeated in the Vineyard. It required listening to the Spirit and hearing from God’s heart. The justice work of the Vineyard, in my experience, is grounded in intimacy with God and led by the Spirit.

The emphasis on the Holy Spirit being within, empowering all believers to let “Christ live his life in us,” as Carol Wimber put it, was also a revelation that was vital in leading me to Friends. I became convinced over time that the clergy-laity distinction was not biblical or “gospel order” and that Christ desired to minister through all people. The open-worship of unprogrammed Friends appealed to me for this reason.

When my view of the Bible began to shift away from Evangelical orthodoxy, I began to see that the things I was starting to believe in had already been realized in the Society of Friends, from their theology to their worship. These Friends did not venerate a book, but they knew a person, their inward teacher. They knew the Word of God could not be contained in a book but experienced in a person, in a living God. I read the stories of early Friends in awe, hungering for the worship they experienced. I wanted to be in a body that depended on the Spirit like that. I wanted to corporately experience the baptism of fire. I wanted to hear God speak through all of God’s children. I also hungered to fight for justice like they did. Their willingness to surrender their lives fully to the gospel, living in solidarity with the oppressed, remaining firm in their convictions even when it caused them to be jailed and tortured. Their fight for justice was real, and it reminded me of the Jesus I fell in love with.

I can’t exactly claim these exact things from the Vineyard led me to Friends, but they definitely pushed me in this direction.

 

 

 

Political Protest is Spiritual Warfare

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Philadelphia City Hall

When I was a freshman in college, my friends and I were discovering charismatic spirituality together. We often had long prayer sessions, and we always expected to experience and hear God. It was messy, naive, often fueled by fear, but God was somehow in it as we experimented with this bizarre mysticism that was so confident in Christ’s Spirit being within us. Some of us walked through our campus often, quietly praying in tongues, rebuking the spirits among us causing fear, spiritual drought, depression, etc., and declaring a better way for the Church and for the school. We called this spiritual warfare.

I still believe in the power of spiritual warfare, even if much of our demon-hunting was a bit silly. I’d like to think that Holy Spirit interpreted our prayers the way they needed to be interpreted, and maybe we did push the devil out of our campus a bit. Hopefully. But still, before Friends of Jesus retreats, I often try to spend time in intercession, praying for the outpouring of the Spirit and protection from the enemy, who loves to stir up quarreling among believers and quench the Holy Ghost. I’m still a firm believer that Christ handed an authority to the Church to be declare, prophesy, and shake things on this earth, and in the spirit realm, to realize the reign of God among and within us.

So I still command demons to shut up and back off. I still pray in tongues when I sense something off, which sometimes is a valid spiritual concern, and other times just my social anxiety acting up. That being said, I very much believe these things are helpful, real, and good. I’ve seen God heal dozens of sick people when hands were laid upon them, and the word of God was declared over them: “be healed.” I’ve felt the power of deliverance, having the weight of shame torn off my spirit instantaneously through a prophetic word. I’ve felt shifts in the atmosphere during worship, and then I’d notice somebody quietly praying in tongues, or interceding, and I’d feel that they probably were helping cleanse the environment for God’s presence to be realized.

I think these things are real.

And as we go in the streets to protest, to demonstrate, we are engaging with the enemy: oppressive, abusive, and corrupt systems. We wage war against the spirit of racism as we declare that Black Lives Matter, and as we point out the sins of our country, the sins of our people, and reveal a better way. One of compassion, one of hope, one of generosity, one of love. Even if we are marching with those who do not identify as followers of Christ, they are carrying a mantle and anointing as well to crush the work of the enemy and extend the reality of God’s love.

All that to say: To protest is to rebuke. To protest is to war against the devil. To protest is to prophesy. And as dangerous forms of religious and political fundamentalism continue to grow in all directions, and as the Empire continues to slaughter innocent people all over the world, we need to be loudly warring against these spirits that are strangling the Church and the world, and we need to preach the Good News. We need to be the Good News.

The Church in America, in this mind-boggling and disheartening political climate, needs to speak. We need to call out the systemic sins of the world, including religious institutions, and live and preach a way forward. Your tongue has the power of life and death (Prov. 18:21), and when you choose not to speak out for Life, you are often giving power to death. So speak. Loudly. For the oppressed, for the forgotten, for the lost, for the hurting, and for all God’s children. And in doing this, you bind the enemy and you confess Christ.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” —Ephesians 6:12

 

I am not white enough

No matter where I’m dropped, I always struggle with a sense of not belonging. I’m a gay, half-Japanese, ex-Moonie, college drop-out, Quaker who believes in Jesus, speaks in tongues, and takes communion. I am in many ways a paradox, but more than anything, I’m a really bizarre human being. And my last post about “White Appropriateness” deeply reflects my own exhausted experience in the white mainline Church. Yes, I painted the mainline world with a broad brush. I recognize that I am currently going through a sudden and painful life-change and some of that hurt may have been funneled into my last post. That said, I stand by everything I wrote, and I hope I can clarify a bit on what I mean by “white appropriateness”, and how I have encountered it among liberal mainline Protestants and even Quakers.

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My best friend and I watching TV and mutually encouraging one another in the sloppy, wacky, and foolish way of Jesus`

“I am not white enough.”

It scares me how often I think this, especially when engaging with my faith community. The biblicism, homophobia, and overall lack of critical thinking were hard to deal with in charismatic circles, but I didn’t struggle as much with shame for not being white enough. Perhaps this was because the charismatic fellowships I was a part of tended be racially and socioeconomically diverse. To be fair, a lot of my experience in Evangelicalism was also haunted by this notion, but not nearly as intensely as I’ve experienced in the past few years of participating in white mainline communities.

For my white readers, I know some of you are thinking, “how often does one’s economic and racial/ethnic background even come up in church?”

I want you to understand that I am constantly interpreting the tongue of white folks. Coffee hour at Quaker meeting is not easy. I listen to Friends talk about summers spent in France, granddaughters at Bard, family trips to Thailand, dietary needs, and Book TV on C-Span. I’ve found that these conversations require deep listening, discernment, and, for better or for worse, self-censorship. It isn’t like people are constantly probing me with questions that expose where I lack privilege (though, I will say, this does happen every time I’m asked about my education, which is every time I go to meeting or church) but I am constantly on my toes, trying to relate, trying to listen, trying to hear, and it is often worth it.

But here’s where it gets discouraging.

When I am myself, authentic and open, sharing my heart or telling my story, talking the way I talk, I’ve often experienced not being heard. I cannot tell you how many times people’s interest in me dissipated after pushing me to tell the story behind my unpronounceable name (which they insist on shortening to “Hye”) and finding out I am an ex-Moonie, or after finding out I am a Christian of a more evangelical orientation, or even when I simply act like me… goofy, emotional, and weird.

By no means do I count “weirdness” as a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s a gift Jesus possessed. Perhaps the way he is portrayed as eloquent, constantly centered, and simply carrying a powerful aura that caused souls to yield, is accurate. But I have a hard time believing that he was not at all a freak. He cursed a fig tree to death because it didn’t bear fruit (Mark 11:12-25), which is a bit extreme, a bit magical, perhaps profound, but most definitely strange. His whole ministry path was not exactly typical, sensible, or even rational. I like weird. And thankfully, Quakers can handle weird. We have our fair share of eccentric folks, with strong personalities and brilliant minds and beautiful souls. That said, it seems to me that “nerdy weird” is the tolerable weird in Quaker circles, and that kind of weird, which I respect and love, can be kind of… white.

And I am not that kind of weird.

I’m speaking in tongues, grew up in a cult, openly weeping over my Irritable Bowel Syndrome, amateur Mormon historian, child of an interracial arranged marriage kind of weird. I’m the kind of weird that is often made to feel inadequate for not finishing my college career, the kind of weird that is demanded an explanation for my “exotic” or “funny-sounding” name (actual things that have been said), and the kind of weird that is dubbed by various believers as either too fundamentalist or overly-spiritual, and either way, too ignorant. I’m the kind of weird that feels irrelevant and invisible in a mainline congregation.

And maybe this doesn’t sound like a racist, classist issue, and maybe I am just an over-demanding special snowflake, but I cannot help but see how much the upper-middle class, white, liberal, and (over-)educated have managed to control whole denominational cultures. I cannot help but see how the Other is forced to conform to a certain cultural standard to the best of their ability to enter the life of the Church. And I cannot help but feel, today and too often, that I am simply not white enough to do this.

 

 

 

 

 

White “Appropriateness” Is Anti-Gospel

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A man getting tackled by the Holy Ghost, cause… why not?

I say all of this is as one who most often participates in Liberal Quaker circles and one who is technically still a member of a wealthier Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) congregation: There is something deeply wrong about the way the white mainline churches function.

I have struggled to put my finger on why exactly I feel so uncomfortable in the liberal mainline world. Of course, this is a complicated, multi-faceted issue and like the rest of the Christian traditions, this part of the Church is not immune to missing out some element of Christ’s Gospel. But I’ve come to realize that my main thing with bigger mainline churches, especially wealthier ones, is the white appropriateness that is so vital to its culture.

I understand the need for boundaries and having order, and the needs for administration and elders in the community to keep the community living out the good news. This need to be “appropriate” and “proper” or even “professional”, though, can be one of the most anti-gospel notions and I think is a huge reason why such churches are bound to die. People’s sloppiness and ultimately, their humanity, their holy foolishness, is rejected. And in that, the gospel of Jesus Christ is rejected.

The Charismatic World has a ton of their own issues, especially in its American form. I do have to commend this part of the Church, though, for approaching relationships, fellowship, worship, and ministry with such a incarnational lens. In these spaces, you will see people rolling on the floor, crying out to God, laughing in the Spirit, and being so… human. I remember one of the first times I entered a charismatic meeting, I was put off by this man with pink-paper dangling off his head, hopping and giggling in the front of the sanctuary, and now I realize I was being… an asshole. This was a child of God, reflecting their Creator’s image in a way that came off as foolish, and in that were being so true to their God-molded nature. Charismaticism, in my experience, is more likely to embrace the eccentric, the broken, and encourage one to experience God as truly as they can.

Meanwhile, so much of the mainline world is so often skeptical of the emotional, of the sentimental, and of anything considered strange or inappropriate. The mainline world tends to quietly disapprove and judge all that they do not understand and lacks… whiteness. We may call it professionalism, or appropriateness, but so often we’re saying “you do not fit the standards of my class and race” when we hold too tightly to such principles.

So much of the Liberal Church in America is fundamentally classist and racist. We desperately need to rebuke the broken ways of the Church, for their sake and the sake of those who are never given the chance to enter the life of the Church because they knew they were not fully embraced as they were. And why were they unable to experience the Church’s embrace? For they did not know the unspoken rules of the wealthy white folks.

It is hard to talk about all of this without diving into how disgusting the corporate structure is in American churches (mainline, Evangelical, and charismatic), and how so much of our church culture reeks of capitalism and the ways of the world. In my opinion, these things are intimately tied together. But what bothers me most deeply is how so many try to reconcile the way of Christ with the Way of white upper-middle class Americans. Simply put, it is impossible. These things do not work together. The attempt itself is White Supremacy.

What the Wise Men Can Teach Us About God

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Journey of the Magi; Inquiry of King Herod (Chora Church, Istanbul, Turkey)

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;  and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’

 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.’ After listening to the king, they went on their way.

And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.” Matthew 2:1-12

I’ve been thinking a lot about these Wise Men, often called the Magi or the Three Kings. Over the past 2,000 years, plenty of theories and legends about these men have circulated throughout the Church. In the Western Church, there is a legend that their names were Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, and that they were respected scholars. It’s been long-claimed that Melchior was Persian, Caspar was Indian, and Balthazar was Babylonian. Syrian Christians claim the names of the Magi to be Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. Ethiopian tradition calls them Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater. Armenians believe their names to be Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma. Meanwhile, Matthew never tells us their names, the number of these wise men, or their actual vocations. There is just about no indication that they are kings, though the Greek word magi (μάγοι) apparently may indicate that they were of a higher, priestly caste.

So what do we know about these men?

Not much. They were from the East. We don’t know if that means they were Persian, Babylonian, Indian, or something else completely. We don’t even know what religion they were. Many, such as the Swedish religious scholar Anders Hultgård, convincingly argue that these Wise Men were in fact Persian Zoroastrians, but again, that is never mentioned in the text. What seems evident enough is that they were not Jewish. They had to ask Jewish people about the scriptural prophecies on the messiah’s birth. They called this man, this baby, the “King of the Jews.” They even followed a star to find Jesus, which sounds awfully astrological to me.

And yet, these non-Jews, perhaps Zoroastrian, perhaps amateur or even seasoned astrologists, looked for Christ, found him, and worshiped him. They never converted to Judaism, they never articulated that this child was God or even Savior, but they knew they had to honor him. And today we venerate these men, often as saints, despite the fact that they never knew about the atoning sacrifice of Christ and never claimed to worship the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Not that we know of, at least.) And yet God led them to this baby, not to be evangelized to, and not to convince them of some doctrine or perform some saving ritual, but so that they may honor him and, I think, experience his presence.

It seems to me that these men knew God. Matthew tells us that God even spoke to them in a prophetic dream as they left Christ, warning them to not to return to the blood-thirsty Herod. God was pretty serious about talking to these men. Even though their religious practices and beliefs would not be considered orthodox by the Jews of their day or even modern Christians, God was with them, for them, and used them. It seems that God even used their own religious system, which in many ways was incompatible with Judaism, to do this.

This is shocking. And I think it’s part of the gospel.

In fact, it makes a lot of sense that God’s arrival on Earth in Christ would be kicked off with an invitation to these men. It seems to me that this was a glimpse into the heart of God. Paul reveals in 1 Timothy 4:10 that our God “is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.” This Savior is the Savior of all people. This good news is good news for all people. I even think this extends to those who do not identify as Christian or even as a Theist.

In Acts 17:16-34, Paul preaches in Athens among philosophers and worshipers of various gods, and appears to commend them for their religiosity as something fascinating and respectable. He boldly claims that their altar and worship to an “unknown god” is truly the “God who made the world and everything in it.” The God proclaimed by Paul “does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” He goes on to say that God “is not actually far from each of us, for in him we live and move and have our being.”

Jesus was prophesied to be Emanuel (Matt. 1:23)or God with us. The new covenant of Christ, revealed through his incarnation, his ministry, his death and resurrection, and even through Pentecost, make it clear that God is with usall of humanity, all of creation. It was the Church, the followers of Christ, who knew very early on that the Spirit was truly poured out on all people (Acts 2:17).

There is an inextinguishable hope for all people in Christ. 

I am confident that it is through Jesus that we can most perfectly know God and most fully inherit the abundant life he offered (Matt. 11:27, John 1:18, 6:37, 14:9, 2 Cor. 5:19, Col. 3:3). That being said, my pursuit of Quakerism has given me the courage to state something I’ve long known but also been hesitant to say out loud: there truly is that of God in everyone.

I have several friends who have left behind Christianity because of the toxic culture in the Church and their inability to have faith in the Christian God, and often any god. Some of them have turned to Buddhism, others dabble in self-help and New Age books and practices, while others have given up an active pursuit of spirituality. Most of these folks have come out of their de-conversion more fully themselves and I would even say more Christ-like. No longer are they hindered in their ability to love and accept others because of their church’s dogma, no longer are they trapped in a culture of condemnation and a phobia of anything academic, and they have found the freedom to ask hard questions and be true to themselves. I think I can see Jesus in that. I would dare to say it is a move of the Spirit.

After all, the life of Jesus illustrates that God will do anything to redeem all people, even if it requires meeting us where we are at and entering into our mess. If you can believe God is in the mess we call Evangelical Christianity—which so often looks like a rigid moralism rather than a spiritual path and which so often contradicts the message of Christ by advocating for violence, nationalism, and capitalism—then it can’t be too hard to accept that God is even working among those who do not know or believe in Jesus Christ.

It is because I believe in the Lordship of Jesus, the incarnation, and the atonement that I can declare that God is in and with all people.

Not only can I declare it, but I can see it and experience it.

Jesus opened my eyes to his sweet presence everywhere. For so long I was numb to that presence, that air of reverence, that breath of God, outside of the ministry of Christians-that-I-mostly-agreed-with. But the longer I’ve been walking with Jesus, I’ve come to discover how wicked that “us vs. them” version of the gospel was and I came to discover God’s presence outside of worship services and Christocentric settings. I came to know the presence of God as I watched my agnostic brother-in-law holding my nephew, as I delighted in the Hare Krishna devotees chanting on the street, and in long late-night conversations with elderly Moonies. I came to know that God was truly with us; all of us.

The Incarnation in the Absurd

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When I was first exposed to a charismatic worship service, I experienced a bit of sensory overload. The shouting, the lights, the blowing of the shofar, the rapid speaking in tongues, the bodies twisting and falling over… it was all new and, to me, a bit much. Over time I learned to deal with flags, the arms raised and bodies swaying, and I even came to admire it and eventually participate in these forms of worship. That said, there was a long while where I could not help but judge the wackier practices and expressions of faith taking place. In fact, I still probably do judge these things. The “fire prayer” specifically annoyed me a great deal. For those foreign to charismania, this is when somebody lays hands on an individual and repeatedly declares “fire.” I dismissed it as manipulative and a futile attempt at prayer (and spirituality).  Yet I saw people fall down, shake, and weep as the chant of “fire, fire, fire” came out of the mouths of those ministering.

Now, the fire tunnel was even more of a joke. If you’re not familiar with fire tunnels, the picture above illustrates what they look like. A train of people go through a tunnel of those offering “ministry,” and hands are briefly laid on people for prophecy and prayer. Often those ministering simply yell “fire!” And again, I would see people very visible affected and moved by this experience. People would come out of the fire tunnel basking in the love of God, sometimes with uncontrollable laughter and other times in quiet tears.

Despite seeing all of this, I still could not help but think that these sincere, good people were obviously imbalanced.

I remember a few nights where I looked across the sanctuary and saw people laughing. I was genuinely disgusted by what I perceived to be irreverent and the result of either a mental illness or of a demon. One day, though, in all my doubt and cynicism, I found myself laughing for over 30 minutes during ministry time, having what old school Pentecostals would call a “glory fit.” I felt consumed by joy and overcome by the love of God.

After many months of worshiping alongside charismatics, I began having more and more emotional, strange, mysterious, and mystical experiences. My judgement towards the phenomena associated with Toronto Blessing and “river churches” started to die down, as I found myself laughing, weeping, shaking, and even struck completely still by God. I kept finding myself humbled by having the value of what I judged proven to me by the Holy Spirit herself.

Though I kept having my concept of discernment obliterated by the Holy Spirit, I still held on to as much cynicism as I could. Yes, I speak in tongues—and I even shake from time to time in prayer—and I have laughed in the Spirit and fell over before—but no, no, no, that ‘fire’ prayer is still ridiculous. As much as I felt so convinced of this, and as silly as the whole fire tunnel thing seemed, I jumped out of my seat when a fire tunnel was forming during one night of worship. Perhaps I was testing God, or perhaps it was a push from the Spirit, or maybe I just wanted to experientially know that this was nonsense—I have no idea, but I joined the train into the tunnel. A few people shouted five to ten word prophecies over me, and some laid hands longer than others to pray something coherent, but then I reached an old sweaty lady and she quickly laid hands and she prayed that goofy prayer: FIRE! As she shouted, immediately my body started getting warm and I began trembling. My knees grew too weak to remain standing so I jumped out and laid on the floor. A modesty cloth was immediately placed on my exposed navel as I twitched away with a heart swollen with love.

I encountered God through an absurd medium. The woman who was praying for me was dripping makeup on me as she passionately cried out to God a simple prayer. More drops of sweat came off her face than words out of her mouth. Perhaps she was authoritatively imparting grace into my life, or perhaps she was interceding on my behalf, but whatever she did worked. I met God in the sweat, in the shouts, in the absurdity.

There is something profoundly incarnational when God peeks through these silly things. These moments are so intensely human and yet, somehow, divine. I would think that the Holy Spirit wouldn’t waste her time on these bizarre attempts to know and experience her, but maybe she does value the wacky ways we approach her. Maybe all our ways of approaching her are kind of wacky. There’s a lot of pretension and arrogance and hard-heartedness in so many  of our prayers and maybe she’s just so excited to have some willingness, some yielding, some raw love, that she can handle a little bit of our ridiculousness.

There is something about such clumsy devotion that reveals the Incarnation so clearly. I’ve had similar experiences in the Society of Friends, as Friends so often give vocal ministry that, to me, reflect this union of Humanity and Divinity in Christ. Now, I’m not talking about that thought-provoking, poetic, and polished message that could make an excellent podcast, but I’m talking about that eccentric, sometimes hard to follow, and most definitely goofy message that you cannot deny is from the heart and even the Spirit of God. You may be listening and growing impatient with what seem to be tangents but find yourself at the end of the message with a heavy silence, finding the Seed in you growing, with a few rising queries that you cannot help but lean into.

I cannot help but think of Mary Magdalene’s odd devotion to Christ in John 12, as she poured expensive ointment on his feet and washed them with her hair. How bizarre, how strange, and even irresponsible. Judas Iscariot called out Mary for her irresponsibility, but Christ affirmed Mary’s devotion. He was thankful, even if it was ridiculous. I’m confident that Jesus revealed the heart of God in his acceptance and delight in the oddness of Mary’s lavished love. I would even say that I’m confident that God accepts and delights in our own goofiness.